Last Night: Rodriguez at House of Blues
You have to wonder how Houston has managed to produce and nurture as many great songwriters as it has over the years, because it's amazing any of them could ever keep their guitars in tune. Tuesday night our city's pernicious humidity sure struck down Rodriguez, the obscure Detroit singer-songwriter suddenly confronted with overnight fame.
His story, as told in the new documentary Searching for Sugar Man and a 60 Minutes profile that aired earlier this month, is pretty amazing. In a nutshell -- I haven't seen the movie, which I hope to remedy soon -- Sixto Rodriguez made two albums of gentle yet street-smart folk-rock in the late '60s and early '70s. That was about it stateside, but those records made their way over to South Africa, where Rodriguez became hailed as a Dylanesque voice of a generation (but didn't know it).
Complicating things further, at some point a rumor that Rodriguez had killed himself spread through the South African media. So a few years ago, a couple of his fans went searching for Sugar Man and found him alive and well and working construction back in Detroit. At House of Blues, all of that buys you about five minutes.
That's about as long as it took for the frost to creep onto the pumpkin Tuesday night. Rodriguez opened with "The Establishment Blues," but the vocal mike was bad, and the crowd let the sound guy know about that right away.
That got fixed soon enough, but more problematic was Rodriguez's poor guitar. It would not stay in tune, and he would not play it out of tune, leading to an impasse that sucked any momentum out of the evening. The ambient crowd chatter that often falls upon House of Blues like a curse followed not long after.
He managed to recover somewhat for "I Wonder," one of the songs the crowd had already been yelling for. Clouded with idealism and worry, it's a little like Donovan but with suspicion in place of flower power. He wonders "how many times you had sex," about the soldiers in the war, and many other things. To quote "Crucify Your Mind," his words give "substance to shadows."
The South Africans might have been on to something, and from what he had to work with, Rodriguez gave it everything he had Tuesday but the tuning problems would not let up. At the 35-minute mark, he had only played five songs, none of which was seven minutes long. Not good. It would have been much better to stick him somewhere between the Bieber wannabes and overnight YouTube sensations at 95.7's "Boo Ball" next door. That would have been something for those kids to ask their parents about.